BWW Reviews: The Alley Theatre Presents THE OLD FRIENDS or The Old Foes?

Jeffrey Bean, Veanne Cox, and Jay Sullivan

Horton Foote's THE OLD FRIENDS is set in 1960 in the fictional town of Harrison, Texas. It's the story of two antagonistic, established Texas families who are waiting for the arrival of the family matriarch's son Hugo and his wife Sibyl. Sibyl arrives with devastating news, and the "old friends" on opposite sides must reconcile with such issues as loyalty, happiness, and family dynamics. This production, directed by the accomplished Michael Wilson, premiered Off-Broadway in 2013 with many of the same cast members and is much-anticipated as the first production in the Alley Theatre's 2014-2015 season.

Annalee Jefferies plays the disenfranchised family matriarch, Mamie Borden. Jefferies has a subtle style that is affective in playing this gentle and resigned character, and her comedic moments are endearing and welcome. Mamie unfortunately lives with her petty and dissatisfied daughter, Julia, played expertly by the entertaining Veanne Cox, and Julia's husband Albert, an angry man who likes his drink, played by Jeffrey Bean. Bean inhabits the role with intensity and appropriate rage, and Albert has plenty to be angry about- Julia is rather indiscreet in her dabbling with a younger man, played by nubile Jay Sullivan.

Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff, a wealthy woman who fills the emptiness in her life with drinking and power games, is played by Betty Buckley. Gertrude seems to have her greedy fingers in everybody's lives, and Buckley, known for her outstanding work playing larger-than-life-characters, is completely credible as the power-hungry Gertrude. The character would be easy to abhor, but Buckley infuses her portrayal with vulnerability and desperation, making Gertrude a woman you want to slap but then hug, or vice versa. One of the more chilling moments in the play occures when Gertrude presents a bribe to her sister in law, Sybil Borden, played by Hallie Foote. A veritable expert of her father's work, Foote is self-assured and even-keeled as Sybil, one of the few sober characters who seems to have her feet firmly planted on the ground. Foote executes the role with a studied gentleness and sensitivity, portraying a woman dealing with grief, money woes, and the glimmer of a renewed love with Howard, Gertrude's employee, brother in law, and Sybil's old flame 30 years ago. Cotter Smith plays Howard with skilled ease and humility, often being the voice of reason in the midst of a severely dysfunctional family.

Betty Buckley as Gertrude

THE OLD FRIENDS is rather ironically titled in that it is not about friends at all, but about self-destructive people and the family members who have to deal with them. This is a play that could easily become a melodramatic farce, but the actors keep the melodrama in check and the climaxes in the play are handled with finesse.

Designer Jeff Cowie's backdrop is downright breathtaking, with lighting by Rui Rita that reflects different times of day. This may seem like a small thing, but it has great impact and actually evokes a sentimentality that is needed to soften the sharper edges of the play.

This production, skillfully directed by Michael Wilson, is playing at The University of Houston while the Alley Theatre undergoes renovations. It must be said that the sound at this venue was frustrating. With the exception of Veanne Cox, all of the actors were difficult to hear at times.

THE OLD FRIENDS runs August 20-Sept 7.


Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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